Everyone loves hummingbirds: they are little jewels of reflective, glittering light, darting through the dappled forest in impossible directions and, if you’re really lucky, alighting on your backyard hummingbird feeder.
I spent months doing research in The Bahamas on a couple of different species of birds, but while there, I got to watch all the other species, and I especially enjoyed watching the hummingbirds. I was even lucky enough to find the nest of a Bahama Woodstar, and couldn’t believe how tiny it was!
Hummingbirds (Family Trochilidae) are a diverse group, with 361 species currently recognized, and every single one depends on nectar as their primary food source. The phylogeny of hummingbirds has not been fully resolved, but evidence suggests that the Bahama Woodstar belongs to a relatively young group of hummingbirds known as the ‘bee’ clade, a group that makes sounds with their tails during courtship. Bahama Woodstars have also been around for a while – their bones were identified in deposits that dated back to the Holocene (<117,000 years before present).
The Bahama Woodstar’s closest relative is the Inagua woodstar (Nesophlox lyrura). Because they have some color differences, they were considered different species for a long time, but in 1945 they were lumped together as one species and only differentiated at the subspecies level. However, a recent genetic analysis showed they were separate enough to warrant species status, in addition to the known morphological differences.
The Inagua woodstar only occurs on the Inagua Islands, while the Bahama Woodstar occurs everywhere else in The Bahamas (including the Turks and Caicos). This is a good example of how islands can play a role in speciation, as isolation and reduced gene flow allows for differential selection and drift to result in population and, eventually, species-level differences.
How to Identify a Bahama Woodstar
Everyone knows what a hummingbird looks like – hovering flight, a long bill, and iridescent feathers (in the males). The throat feathers (gorgets) of hummingbirds are reflective, meaning they look black unless the sunlight catches them.
Bahama Woodstars are no exception. They are small hummingbirds, 8-9.5cm long, and weighing 2.4-3g. They have a green/gold back, olive-buff underparts, brown wings, and a blackish-purple tail. Males have a forked tail and a bright purple throat, whereas females have a more rounded tail and a white throat.
Where does Bahama Woodstar Live: Habitat
They occupy pine forests, scrub forests, and evergreen forests/coppice and are common in backyards, readily coming to hummingbird feeders. They are more common in old-growth than second growth pine forests or coppice.
Bahama Woodstar Diet and Feeding
Like all hummingbirds, Bahama Woodstars feed on nectar. They will also eat small insects as a source of protein, using a behavior called ‘hawking,’ where they catch insects while flying. During their feeding, they are important pollinators of several species of plants, including black mangroves (Avicennia germinans) and the endemic Bahama swamp-bush (Pavonia bahamensis).
Bahama Woodstar Breeding
Male Bahama Woodstars court females by performing a flight display consisting of two parts: a shuttle and a dive. A male flies in front of the female side-to-side, during which he uses his wings to produce a buzzing sound, or he hovers in front of her, singing, using his wings to produce a purring sound. The mechanism of how the wings produce these sounds is unknown.
After these shuttle displays, he will do a display dive, where he ascends, dives downward, and spreads his tail repeatedly, which produces notes. The sound is produced because the outer tail feather flutters and produces a note, and so each tail spread produces one note.
Since this species lives in a tropical environment, they can breed year-round, but most commonly, they breed in Jan-April. The courtship and copulation are the male’s only contribution towards reproduction; the female does the rest.
Bahama Woodstar Nesting
Hummingbirds, as tiny birds, have tiny nests. The nest of the Bahama Woodstar is no exception, measuring just one inch across. On the outside, there are small pieces of bark or moss stuck on as camouflage, and the inside is lined with soft material, such as down feathers, hair, or soft plant fibers.
Spiderwebs may be incorporated into the nest as well, giving it some flexibility. Nest height ranges from 2-12 feet off the ground, and the nest is usually on a thin branch. Females choose the site and build the nest.
Bahama Woodstar Eggs
Two eggs are usually laid. They are white and elongated. The female incubates for around 15-18 days, broods for 1-2 weeks after hatch, and then continue feeding the chicks until they fledge around 20-24 days. The juveniles may remain with the adult female for another 20-30 days after fledging.
Bahama Woodstar Population
This species is endemic to The Bahamas, including the Turks and Caicos, except for the Inagua Islands, where the closely related Inagua Woodstar is found. It is a vagrant to Cuba and Florida and has even shown up in Pennsylvania.
Is the Bahama Woodstar Endangered?
Though they are listed as Least Concern, a workshop of experts recommended that a status review was necessary. Intense storms can reduce flower availability and so cause a population decline due to resource limitations. A recent summary of observations on eBird revealed that this species might be declining on two islands, but the cause is unknown.
Bahama Woodstar Habits
These birds have three different vocalizations: calls, songs, and scolding calls. Calls are given when feeding and flying and are usually a repeated ‘chip’ though the number given varies. Songs are fast and high-pitched, lasting 3-27 seconds. Scolding calls are a two-syllable pattern, with the second syllable repeated a variable number of times.
Like most hummingbirds, Bahama Woodstars aggressively defend their food – nectar-bearing flowers – from other hummingbirds and even from large insects.
Bahama Woodstar Predators
Very few animals can catch adult hummingbirds, and survival is probably high at this stage as long as sufficient food is present. In the nest, like most birds, chicks are very vulnerable to pretty much any carnivore that can find them. Males can be so aggressive to each other that fights result in injury and sometimes death, but this is not predation.
Bahama Woodstar Lifespan
Their lifespan is not known. Most hummingbird species have lifespans of around 3-5 years, though some species can live longer.
Answer: These hummingbirds are surprisingly indifferent to the presence of people, and you can often approach them fairly closely without disturbing them.
Answer: No, but amazingly, they are sister taxa (closest evolutionary relationship) with the smallest hummingbird, the bee hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae). The bee hummingbird is, in fact, the smallest bird in the world, weighing only 1.74g.
Answer: Locally, some call them the ‘God Bird’, though it’s unclear exactly why.
There are three species of birds that are endemic to The Bahamas. That means they only exist on those islands and nowhere else in the world. The Bahama Woodstar is one of these endemic species, and so to see one, you’d have to go to the Caribbean – which is a pretty awesome place to visit!
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